KLA Bolstered by Allies, Training, Arms
By R. Jeffrey Smith
KUKES, Albania Kosovo Liberation Army recruits have flocked from Croatia, Macedonia and Western Europe to a sprawling training camp here, where they learn Western-style military discipline and test fire mortars and anti-tank weapons that they soon hope to carry into battle in Kosovo.
No one would compare the month-long training regime to the punishing routine of U.S. military boot camps. But the increased emphasis on physical conditioning and weapons training by the ethnic Albanian rebels offers one explanation for recent assessments by some Western officials that the KLA stands a chance of turning its fortunes around after being pummeled by Serb-led Yugoslav forces in Kosovo over the past two months.
"The KLA has bottomed out . . . and is clearly in the ascendancy right now," said a State Department official who watches the Balkans closely and just returned to Washington from a week-long visit here.
Western officials also cite the recent appointment of Agim Ceku, a battle-tested former Croatian army general, as the rebels' senior commander, and their access to fresh arms. "The [military] image they have in the world . . . is incorrect," said Lt. Gen. John W. Hendrix, commander of U.S. forces in Albania. "They have some limitations for sure, but they are getting better all the time."
Although NATO has maintained a public distance from the rebels on grounds that it opposes their goal of a Kosovo independent of Yugoslavia and its dominant republic, Serbia, here in Kukes there is ample evidence that the KLA's recruitment activities, training and field operations are receiving at least tacit allied military assistance.
The subject of NATO's cooperation with the rebels is sensitive, and details are not volunteered. But sources say that NATO war planners have been relying on scouting reports by KLA rebels inside Kosovo to direct airstrikes, and that members of the alliance have ignored some recent arms shipments to the KLA.
"We think that Americans . . . support us. . . . They find a way to tell us the truth and give their advice on what to do," said a KLA commander in Kukes known as "Tomorri."
The rebel force has not persuaded Western governments to lift an arms embargo imposed on the Yugoslav region at the beginning of the decade that has blocked its access to the Swedish-made BILL-2 anti-tank missile, the Carl Gustav M2 missile, Western-made heavy artillery and other sophisticated weaponry.
That means the KLA cannot expect to achieve more than a stalemate in the coming months against more numerous and heavily armored Serb-led Yugoslav troops in Kosovo unless NATO ground troops also join the battle, according to U.S. and NATO officials.
But one top KLA officer said the imbalance had been partially corrected because NATO countries are "closing one eye" when the rebels make black-market purchases funded by the Albanian diaspora in Europe and the United States of relatively unsophisticated armaments.
Mortars, submachine guns and sniper rifles are being shipped here from Bosnia, Croatia, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Uniforms, boots, field rations, satellite phones and radios come from Western Europe, while Chinese-made rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank cannons and AK-47 assault rifles are shipped to the border by the Albanian army.
"They seem to have an endless supply of weapons and ammunition," Hendrix said.
KLA commanders claim a number of recent victories, which cannot be independently confirmed. Coordinated action by two brigades still a relative novelty for the rebels killed scores of government troops near the village of Padesh last week, they say, and other units achieved an important victory near the city of Suva Reka. KLA officials also report capturing a Praga anti-aircraft cannon near Decani and a cache of anti-tank weapons near Pristina, the Kosovo capital.
NATO bombing of Yugoslav army positions in Kosovo has helped by suppressing the movement and massing of heavy weaponry, such as artillery and tanks, near the Albanian and Macedonian borders, said a top KLA officer.
Several KLA commanders report that Yugoslav troops are having increasing trouble communicating with each other and are running short of food, cigarettes, alcohol and ammunition. Government troops now rarely travel more than a few miles at a time in convoys of more than five vehicles. "When Serbs fight, they fight from inside their vehicles," a KLA commander said. "They even scoop up bodies" without stepping outside.
But rebel political leader Hashim Thaqi, the prime minister of an interim Kosovo government-in-exile, said he worries that the KLA will not be able to carry on its fight successfully without additional assistance. If NATO "continues only with airstrikes, the crisis in Kosovo will get deeper," he said.
On a planned trip this week to Washington, where he is slated to meet with Clinton administration officials, Thaqi said he plans to make "a big and urgent request: Send ground troops to Kosovo. We will repeat this message; we will ask them to be more determined, to get involved more quickly."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company